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A Response to the Vice-Chancellor

On 5th May the Vice Chancellor sent a long email to all staff which implicitly responds to the Crisis Justice at Sussex campaign. That campaign is itself a response to the programme of cuts outlined in the Financial Review Guidelines, which were circulated in their original form on 25th March and then published in revised form on 7th April.


Here we respond in a spirit of good faith to a number of points in the VC's email. We draw on our Report to Members on the FRGs of 28th April, which analyses and criticises the key sections of the FRGs in both their original and revised form.


We begin with a statement from the VC's email that we fully endorse:


We have to make critical decisions now to protect the future of the University for the benefit of the whole community. Not just you our staff and our students, but our future staff and students, as well as the City and region as a whole. It is the right and responsible thing to do and we need to do it together.


We agree that in the context of the pandemic we must make critical decisions and that we must act together. As the email says elsewhere 'The financial health of our university affects us all and so it follows that we all play a part in determining its future.' However we would make two additions:


First, this 'we' must not be limited to permanent staff. It must include everyone employed by the University, including Doctoral, Associate and School Tutors and staff on fixed term and zero-hours contracts. The FRGs make cuts almost exclusively at the expense of the security and livelihoods of these staff.


And second, the fact that the FRGs were prepared, and were supposed to be implemented, behind the backs of staff and without any consultation with the campus unions stands in flagrant contradiction to the ideas of 'doing it together' and 'all playing a part in determining the university's future'.


We are also fully supportive of several other initiatives mentioned in the email, including the extension of the contracts of hourly-paid teaching staff for the remainder of this academic year; the move to use the Job Retention Scheme to furlough staff who are currently unable to carry out their jobs (a move on which we are in ongoing negotiation with the UEG); and of course work on manufacturing Personal Protective Equipment and on Covid-19 testing and research.


Responding to the financial rationale


However we must disagree with other parts of the email. At its heart is the following rationale for the proposed cuts:


If international students stay away this autumn, whether by choice or compulsion, the impact on the University’s finances would be immediate and severe. We don’t yet know what the effect would be but if our numbers were to fall by half, our financial modelling indicates that we are looking at a loss of around £38 million. But this could be worse, depending on the number of international students and home students that turn up.

UK students, too, may decide they wish to defer their studies until this all blows over. If just one in ten take this view, we would lose an additional £13 million. That obviously multiplies if the stance is more widespread.

If we are unable to house students on campus for half of the year, this adds another £20 million to the tally.


We respond as follows:


First, a 50% fall in international student numbers and a 10% fall in UK numbers are simply possible scenarios. The fact is that no-one knows by what proportion the intake of students may fall this autumn. We cannot even assign probabilities to different possible outcomes. Nor can we predict whether any changes in student numbers will be permanent.


Second, in the last few days the government has brought forward a package of support measures for the sector which will guarantee institutions against any liquidity crisis, and has given clear signals that it will do more if that turns out to be necessary:


We are committed to supporting higher education providers and students. We will continue to work with the sector to closely monitor and review the effect of the measures in this package and emerging issues affecting the sustainability of the sector and the interests of students


Third, although Sussex earns a higher proportion of its income from international students than most universities (22% in 2018-19) it is also in good financial health. According to a BBC reporter briefed by the VC, it 'has reserves that will allow them to weather the next few years' (Today Programme, 4th May, from 46:53). This is confirmed by the University's Financial Statements 2018-19 (p. 27), which state that it has 'unrestricted reserves' of £330m. It is true that the VC's email says that 'the majority of our reserves are earmarked for critical investments', but this assertion only raises the question of what sums have been earmarked for what investments and on what basis. In the interests of transparency, this information should be published to staff.


We conclude that the present circumstances do not justify a round of precipitate cost cutting. We add that even if cost cutting does prove necessary, the FRGs represent the wrong kind of cost cutting. Any cost cutting should be done on the principle of 'crisis justice': that sacrifices in a crisis must come from the top down. Our fundamental objection to the FRGs is that they do the opposite of this.


De facto termination of contracts


The email also discusses 'some of the untruths that you may have heard' that must not be 'left to fester when we have so much at stake'. To describe claims - no matter how mistaken - made by members of our community as 'festering', as if they were an infected wound in the body of the University, is very disturbing. We wish the VC would avoid such language. However, we shall summarise the four claims identified by the email as 'untruths' and state our own stance on them.


The first claim is that the University has ended contracts early:


We have not ‘fired’ staff, as claimed by some, or ended any contracts early. I accept that some of the fears around this were of our own making and hopefully by now you will have had time to review the revised financial guidelines we issued a couple of weeks ago. We will continue to honour all contractual commitments.


Our objection to sections SC1-3 of the FRGs, stated in our Report to Members, is not that they call for contracts to be ended early. It is to their generic demand that there be no renewal of casual and temporary contracts once they expire unless the post is deemed 'business-critical' or (in the alternative language of the revised FRGs) 'essential'. In our petition of 29th April we describe this as the 'de facto termination' of contracts because it has the same effect as the termination of a standard contract: people employed on these contracts will be out of work in a sector rapidly closing its doors to new recruits. We believe this description is fair. We are pleased that the UEG are not ending any contracts early, but we have not accused them of doing this.


Maternity and sickness


The second claim is that the University has cut maternity and sick benefits:


We are not proposing any cuts to maternity or sick benefits or imposing pay cuts. Such moves would be completely counter to our values and have not even been considered.


The original FRGs stated that 'backfill for maternity/paternity leave' and 'backfill for illness' will 'need to be considered with a view to being cancelled and serviced through existing resource', and in the revised FRGs 'cancelled' is simply replaced by the euphemism 'reviewed'. In other words, the FRGs contain a proposal that temporary staff should not be hired to replace those who are on maternity/ paternity leave or sick leave. In our petition we summarised this as 'cuts to provision supporting maternity and sick leave', which we believe is accurate.


Equalities


The third claim is that the cuts target specific groups:


We are not taking decisions that target any particular group or category of staff, neither by design nor accident.


We cannot agree with this statement by the VC.


First, it is incontrovertible that sections SC2 and SC3 of the FRGs directly threaten the livelihoods of two groups of staff on the University payroll, namely Doctoral/Associate/School Tutors and staff on fixed term contracts. By contrast permanent staff are unaffected by these sections.


Second, the proposal in section SC4 to cancel (or 'review') backfill for maternity/ paternity or sick leave is likely to have a gender-based and disability-based discriminatory effect. It will thereby potentially threaten two categories of staff (by which we understand groups defined by legally protected characteristics): women and those with disabilities.

Third, it is very possible that Doctoral/Associate/School Tutors and staff on fixed term contracts include a higher proportion of staff of other protected characteristics, for example BAME staff, so that proposals for cuts affecting these groups may have a discriminatory effect.


Fourth, if some staff on fixed term contracts are migrant workers then they may be subject to deportation if their contract is not renewed. A policy of non-renewal will therefore disproportionately impact migrant workers and may well prove discriminatory, if not in law then at least ethically. In so far as migrant workers themselves may prove more likely to be BAME this policy could also be discriminatory in law, since race, unlike migrant status, is legally a protected characteristic.

Fifth, the FRGs' distinction between 'business-critical' (or 'essential') posts and others is vague, and its interpretation is left to the discretion of budget holders. Our research has shown that individual budget holders have interpreted these terms very differently from one another, giving rise to arbitrary discrepancies in treatment between members of different schools and divisions. This also raises the possibility that conscious or unconscious bias may lead to these terms being applied in a way that discriminates against those with protected characteristics.


Despite the above issues, to our knowledge the FRGs have not been subject to an Equality Impact Assessment, or to any similar assessment that would demonstrate compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duty. In the absence of any such assessment, we believe the VC lacks a basis on which to assert that no category of staff has been targeted by the proposed cuts, whether by accident or design.


Were the cuts pre-planned?


The fourth claim is that the cuts were pre-planned and their implementation now is an example of 'crisis-opportunism':


We are not using the cover of coronavirus as an excuse to implement pre-planned cuts.


Because of the opacity of the UEG's planning process it is impossible for us, as members of staff, to know the truth of this matter. However in the email sent to budget holders to accompany the original version of the FRGs on 25th March the VC stated that:


Over the last six months, the University’s Executive Group (UEG) along with Heads of Schools and Divisional Directors plus many supporting colleagues, had already been undertaking a comprehensive review to identify ways in which we could reduce our spend and make major savings [...] However, this work was done before the Covid-19 pandemic had arisen, and we now know that we need to accelerate our timescales on savings and to implement a suite of new and immediate measures on expenditure.

In an email sent to staff on 7th April to accompany the publication of the revised FRGs the VC again made a connection between earlier plans for savings and the FRGs:


During the last year the University undertook a comprehensive review to identify ways in which we could make savings in order to invest in our research infrastructure, the student experience, our estate and our IT systems. Now, however, the Covid-19 pandemic is costing the University millions of pounds.


These passages clearly suggest a continuity between a project to make 'major savings' going back over six months or a year and the FRGs. In this light it is quite reasonable to hypothesise that elements of the FRGs may already have been planned before the present crisis, especially given the VC's recent invocation of the idea of 'creative destruction'. If the UEG wish to counter this hypothesis we suggest that they do so simply by publishing to staff full documentation of the above-mentioned 'comprehensive review'.


Fixed term contracts


Finally, we would like to comment on two other passages in the email.


The first refers to the extension of fixed term contracts:


I can report that, since we issued our financial guidelines and with thorough scrutiny, we have still agreed to a number of needed new posts and extended more than 20 fixed term contracts, across business-critical academic and professional roles.


Obviously, we welcome every case in which a member of staff's fixed term contract has been extended. However 20 is a small proportion of those employed on fixed term contracts at Sussex, even if we leave Doctoral, Associate and School Tutors out of the total count. (880 academic staff as well as unknown number of professional services staff were employed on fixed-term contracts at Sussex in 2018-19 - see the HESA table on employment conditions.) To provide security to members of our community on fixed term contracts the University needs to give a generic assurance that contracts due to expire during the pandemic will be renewed. This is what our campaign calls for.


Voluntary severance


The second refers to the impending voluntary severance scheme:


We have just this week presented to our governing Council the proposal for a voluntary severance scheme, which has been designed in constructive discussions with our campus trade unions.


This is technically correct but needs clarification. At the end of March the UEG advised the unions that they wished to bring forward a voluntary severance scheme and to consult with the unions before announcing it. In the next month reps from the UEG and each of the unions held a total of six meetings. The union reps made it clear throughout that the unions' position was one of 'engagement but not agreement'. That is, we do not agree with the financial rationale for a voluntary severance scheme, but given that the UEG intends to bring one forward we have engaged to ensure that it is the best one possible, especially in terms of its level of offer, its safeguards against coercion and pressure, and its guarantees against overloading remaining staff with work. Although we believe the scheme has improved on all these counts as a result of the unions' positive suggestions, it remains essentially designed and owned by the UEG.


Returning to our four demands


We shall finish by going back to the four basic demands of our campaign in the light of the VC's email. In shortened form, they are:


1. That the UEG withdraw the FRGs immediately.


The FRGs, and the secretive way they were initially propagated, have done immense damage to the trust of staff in the University's senior leadership. As we have laid out here and in our Report to Members, they are multiply deficient from the point of view of justice towards the University's employees. They will also have detrimental effects on the University as an academic institution, an issue that will be discussed at an emergency meeting of Senate to be held on 13th May. The UEG needs to have the grace to withdraw them and start again from a different place.


2. That the UEG ensure no detriment to the pay and conditions of the University’s precarious staff during the present crisis, regardless of their contract or visa status.


We call for the UEG to extend contracts for all casualised employees until the Covid-19 crisis is over. We ask it to offer a series of protections to our Postgraduate Research Students, including ensuring that they have the same access as in previous years to paid teaching work and funding. Regrettably the VC's email does not address at all the situation faced by PGR students as a result of the FRGs.


Meanwhile we welcome and support the recent creation of Sussex Precarious Academics as a reaction to the FRGs and a means for precarious staff to organise in defence of their own livelihoods.


3. That in case cost cutting proves necessary the UEG commit first of all to implementing a 6:1 maximum pay ratio.


Despite its overarching assertion that 'we are all in this together' the VC's email makes no mention of the possibility of senior pay cuts as a way of addressing a financial crisis. By contrast, in case of any need for cost cutting, we call for the UEG to begin by introducing a maximum pay ratio such that no-one in the University community earns more than six times the salary of its lowest-paid full-time employee. Currently that is £17,361, so the maximum would be £104,166. This proposal is a simple way of enacting the idea of crisis justice. The VC's recent decision to take a 10% pay cut is a small but positive step in this direction. We urge the UEG to go much further.


4. That the UEG commit to taking all major decisions in response to the present crisis transparently, respecting all equalities, and in full and open consultation with Council, Senate, the campus Trade Unions and the Students’ Union.


Despite its assertion that 'we all play a part in determining the university's future' the email makes no reference to how we are supposed to play such a part, apart from attending two forthcoming VC's Q&A sessions. We call for an inclusive and democratic way forward. In particular we welcome the 'Collaborative University Approach to the Post-Pandemic Era' currently emerging from across the campus as a way to start implementing this.


To conclude, the VC begins his email by saying that the University is at a 'critical point' in its history. We could not agree more. But the crisis is deeper than a financial one. It is a crisis of values. The FRGs are a testimony to how far the UEG has strayed from the values that are central to the University of Sussex. The UEG must recognise this and withdraw the FRGs before they do further damage, as a prelude to building the 'practical, humane and just leadership' we call for at Sussex in response to the pandemic crisis.


Crisis Justice at Sussex



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